Friday, July 3, 2015

Misfit Blues at Dancing on the Edge

The 2015 Dancing on the Edge Festival kicked off last night at the Firehall with the return of Festival favourite Paul-André Fortier, here presenting a new duet, Misfit Blues, that he choreographed for himself and Regina-based dance legend Robin Poitras. The set, designed by Edward Poitras, is comprised of a large white plastic circular tarpaulin that floats like a big glowing moon above the black marley of the stage, and upon which, positioned slightly stage right, there is a bench wrapped in what appeared to be layers of saran wrap or clear packing tape. Around the edges of this space are various props: piles of clothes stage right and left; a large stand-up electric fan upstage right; a closed suitcase on a tabletop with the Latin phrase "pro pelle cutem" written on it (which, after a Google search, I have subsequently learned is the motto of the Hudson's Bay Company, meaning "skin for skin [and/or leather]") upstage left; and, most curiously (and slightly menacingly), another suitcase downstage left, this one open and spilling various fur pelts before the open mouth of a stuffed dog.

Our senses thus primed to anticipate something more theatrical or narrative-based, Fortier and Poitras immediately undercut these expectations, emerging casually from the wings to strike a series of simple conjunctive poses in the middle of the white tarpaulin. There is no music, no fancy lighting: just two bodies silently arcing and torquing their arms and torsos and legs to form a succession of symbiotic tableaux. All we hear is the slight squish of the dancers' shoes (Fortier's black oxfords and Poitras' bright orange trainers) as they shift from position to position. (A bit later Poitras will change her shoes, joining Fortier in making another foot-related sound on the tarpaulin by crawling about on all fours and tapping their toes on the floor.) Eventually the pair moves to the bench, where they resume their sculptural duet, but this time sitting, and mainly shifting the balance and direction and weight of their upper bodies in response to each other. At a certain point Fortier gets up from the bench and moves downstage, bending his legs and extending one arm to the side, beginning a version of a solo that he will repeat throughout the piece, one that builds on his trademark wingspan to trace a series of gestural phrases and semi-indexical hails through the air. Indeed, one of the most compelling things to me about Fortier as a dancer is how he moves his arms: to watch him slide one of these limbs from his side and extend it into space, always punctuating the movement with a clear separation between the fingers, is to share in a sublime moment of kinaesthetic grace.

Not that Poitras is any slouch in the grace department (although it must be said that Fortier has given her a less obviously "dancey" movement vocabulary, and no solo, preferring to carry her around at the beginning like a rag-doll, and later even dancing her body for her). In one of my favourite moments in the piece, Fortier begins "walking" in place, pumping his arms forward and back in a rhythmic motion. Poitras, who has been doing a quick change off to the side, joins him mid-stride, as it were, perfectly coordinating her arms to Fortier's. At a certain point the pair begins a slow turn on the spot, all the while continuing to windmill their arms. Then the pace quickens, to the point where Poitras' arms start to flail off in all directions. But, without missing a beat, she finds the rhythm again, matching Fortier arm for arm, breath for breath. It's such a simple bit of unison choreography, but in its very simplicity reveals something profound about the beauty of two bodies being perfectly in sync.

That said, Misfit Blues, is not merely an abstract exploration of the possibilities of pedestrian movement.  Those props are there for a reason, and Fortier and Poitras, in addition to revealing to us their dancing selves, also take on what I'm going to call clown roles, speaking to each other in pidgin Russian as they enact various scenes of physical buffoonery, starting with an energetic upside down sequence on the bench. These bits are hilarious, but are also filled with magical and truly surprising instances of movement, as when--most wondrously for me--the pair use that aforementioned fan to compete to see whose white tissue can be blown the furthest into space. Here, and elsewhere in the piece, we are shown that dance is not just a sequence of choreographed steps; it is the movement of all things in time and space.

Sometimes that movement is more and sometimes less theatrical; the juxtaposition of the pedestrian and the performative in this piece invites interpretation, to be sure, but it also resists easy synthesis. Just ask that stuffed dog, who, while not speaking, it turns out has been keeping a very close eye on the proceedings.


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